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  • Ben

How do you build rapport via a machine?

Updated: May 15, 2020

The perils of social media - stress, context collapse, searching for meaning, and talking past strangers...


I'm looking forward to speaking alongside friends at the Better Conversations for Leaders’ summit.  ‘Diversity Changes Minds’ is the title of my talk - it introduces cognitive diversity.


This blog is connected to how we think within digital environments. It's now normal to be remote and for machines to sit between us, orchestrating how we meet for the first time. I can't be alone in finding this awkward?


I've been parachuted into a LinkedIn group but only met a handful of people. Back in the 'real world - I would ask questions and get to know people before sharing my own thoughts. Do virtual environments work differently?


There's an irony here - I'm conscious of sharing a blog which you haven't asked for. But at the heart of this story is my struggle adapting to the virtual world, and I feel obliged to provide some background. If you haven't got time - here are a few of the questions I arrive at towards the end.


  • What brought you to this group? A friend, curiosity...

  • What content interests you?

  • Are there any specific challenges we can discuss as a group?

  • Has your attitude to Social Media changed under lockdown?


A quick introduction - I find staring at screens for prolonged periods makes me stressed, forgetful, and disorientated. I become blind to words and prone to error, losing energy, but also the ability to sleep.  I’m an extrovert but continuous screen-time changes me - I feel a sense of withdrawing from life.  


Being with people has the opposite effect.  I love conversation, hanging out with friends and meeting new people.  I thrive in diverse environments where different perspectives and ideas are appreciated.  This gives me energy, inspiration, and the platform to grow.  More than this though - it gives me an intangible sense of belonging.


Wellbeing for me is also about movement and exercise.  Walking outdoors allows me to process information whilst soothing my senses.  I solve problems and have aha moments in random places e.g. when washing the car or in the shower.  Playing sports with other people helps me to connect patterns, think laterally, and understand performance from a holistic perspective. To sum it up - I live closer to my full potential away from screens.


“Everyone is a genius but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


- Albert Einstein


Covid-19 has narrowed the way we all experience the world but its impact is individual.  I got diagnosed with ADHD fairly recently.  The way we frame conditions and disorders is for another day, but it seems illogical to think of a brain as normal or defective.  How can the most complex thing in the universe be reduced to this?


"ADHD is like having a Ferrari engine but with bicycle brakes"


- Dr Edward Hallowell


Cultural and environmental changes led to health problems and forced me to rely on my weaker brakes.  The ‘Social’ (perhaps physical is more appropriate?) distancing measures causes the same problem.


I spent half of my working life in digital advertising, digital media, and tech roles, and the upshot of this experience?  I ran ad blockers, quit ‘social’ platforms, and detox from screens whenever possible.  I love technology but balance is important for me, and so are boundaries.  My problem is the model which drives the way we use tech, or perhaps another perspective is - how it is used on us.


Let’s consider a couple of paradoxes -


  • We have access to more information than ever before but seem less able to use it wisely


  • We are better connected than ever before but also feel more isolated


The principle enquiry - What are we missing, or simply misunderstanding? Have we mistaken the map for the territory?  The thing I’m trying to explore here - do we all share the same experience of reality, and what are the consequences if we don't?  The reason I I'm curious - at a fundamental level, our brain has two different (and often opposing) ways of attending to the world.  One half of our brain helps us to use the world (prey mode) by grasping, manipulating, and extracting. The other half gives meaning which allows us to make sense, experience, explore, and understand people, life, and the world in its full context.


Here’s some of that context - The capitalist systems that shapes our existence prioritises our how do we ‘use the world’ mindset. We optimise almost everything for scale and efficiency, prioritising transactions, productivity, and predictability.  This ability to use and shape our environment has given us extraordinary power, but in doing so we see the planet as a dumping ground, or a pile of resources to extract.  We have managed to detour nature’s usual checks and balances which prevent apex predators quickly rising to the top of food chains and decimating ecosystems.


The accumulation of this power should come with increased wisdom but the ‘father of sociobiology’ Edward O. Wilson sums up our unique story succinctly “Humans have Paleolithic Emotions with Medieval Institutions and God-Like Technology”.  We skipped through multiple eras grabbing what we could, but without properly transcending any of them.  


What on earth has this got to do with social media I hear you ask?  Fair point - remember my lack of brakes! Anyway, what were the conditions which allowed humans to flourish in the first place?  In my opinion - human's are social, creative, and complex. We experience the world, and discover meaning through physical, emotional, and spiritual connections with people, places, communities and nature.  It is these aspects of life which allow us to make-sense of our existence, find our purpose, and ultimately thrive. 


Our strength used to be our ability to form close knit bonds within small tribes. Fast forward to today and our complex civilisations are are anything but. Our attention is a finite resource and we struggle with the volume of information and connections. Some people are better at adapting to this environment than others, but we all outsource our memory, thinking, and decision-making to technology on some level. We have pursued quantity and transactions, but neglected purpose and relationships. We are more isolated because we know more about far flung celebrities, than we do about our neighbours.


Our loss of community, and the rise of mental illness, addiction, consumerism, climate change, and ecological collapse all point to the same cause - a crisis of meaning.  As our world closes in on us through concrete, screens, and objects, we’ve been separated by everything that actually sustains and keeps us healthy.  These forces have made us more polarised - we've lost the capacity to understand one another, find common ground, or find the time to sit down and chat.


People are burnt out from the scientific management (Taylorism) imposed on their lives - through admin, rules, procedures, systems, and metrics.  In many ways consumption and accumulation distracted us from our real role - as cogs in a machine - which endlessly categorises, sorts, and discards us.  What is the generational and cultural legacy of this idea and how does it feed into each and every crisis above?


We take this baggage into virtual environments which makes it even harder to decipher what is, and who is real.  Who are the people (or bots) behind the pixelated headshots, the agendas, preferences, values, and interests?  Most of the time we have no idea, but it is human nature to reach out and trust.


In the 20th Century we transitioned from production to services, and the arrival of digital communication tools allowed us to share knowledge with one another at scale.  The internet, mobile and social media turbo-charged this trend and now we share every thought that enters our fragmented minds.  But, there seems to be an awakening of sorts - a push back against the - 'more is better' - mentality, and a desire to return to the local and meaningful connection. Surely this will change the nature of Social Media?


Back to the future -  The poet Edward Young asked “why when we are born original - do so many die as copies”?  A reason today is because of Machine Learning (ML) capabilities which social platforms use to usher us into echo chambers. The goal is to make human behaviour predictable but when you consider how different the 21st Century will be - is this the opposite of what we need?


So, what is technology for? Does it improve our lives through wisdom and relationships (meaning), or is digital technology just another vehicle for selling or controlling us?


Covid-19 will provide some of us with space to gaze into the future - will it be more conceptual, diverse, and social, and if so how will technology change? I would like tech to be less formal, bureaucratic, and hands-on, and more creative, fun, and freeing. Technology is a wonderful servant, but unplugging is a necessity for people to thrive in a cognitively challenging future. When freed from distraction, the space opens for us to reconnect with everything that generates meaning.


I understand and connect with people through observation, conversation and experiences. I value irony, humour, complexity, and nuance, but these are lost in digital text. Maybe I'm overthinking, but our world can be judgemental, and comments are often taken out of context, but they remain in the digital sphere forever. With my occasional word blindness in mind, it is this backdrop which lights up my stress response system as I hover over the ‘send’ button.


I would like to overcome and contribute to this group's conversation in a meaningful way. This would make the time I spend staring at a screen worthwhile. But with an infinite amount of information a click away, how can our group of speakers help you in a more personalised way? What subjects, interactions, problems, or opportunities are you interested in?


Thanks for sticking with it - I thought a scene-setting approach would help initiate 'better conversations' on the run up to our event. We would love to hear what you think about the effect distance has on relationships...